Herschel Walker stumps for votes outside a livestock pen at an auction site in Athens.

Herschel Walker stumps for votes outside a livestock pen at an auction site in Athens.

Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Republican U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker played opening act for a herd of cows Wednesday during a campaign stop at Northeast Georgia Livestock LLC, a livestock auction house in Athens.

“I grew up in, like I said, Wrightsville, Georgia,” Walker told the crowd of farmers and ranchers. “I grew up with goats, cows, horses, crap on my feet. You ask my opponent if he grew up like that. So, I know what you guys are going through, and I’m going to fight with you. I stand with our farmers.”

What farmers are going through is price increases that touch nearly every aspect of the job, said the venue’s owner, Todd Stephens.

“Fertilizer prices last year were about $450 a ton. This year, they’re about $850 a ton,” he said. “Diesel fuel went from three something a gallon to $5.50. The customers we got today are losing five cents a pound just in fuel costs.”

Walker sought to pin the blame for those increases on the actions of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, and President Joe Biden.

“We have people on the left who are campaigning, they’re not telling you the truth,” he said. “You know that they’re not telling you the truth, you’ve seen these gas prices. Inflation has gone off the roof, and they’re telling you, ‘Get used to it, that’s the way it’s going to be.’”

Warnock’s team says Walker’s pitch to farmers is all hat, no cattle, pointing to efforts Warnock has made as a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture to help farmers, including partnering with Republican Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville to push for removing trade barriers for peanut farmers, expand rural broadband access and provide debt relief to small farmers.

Warnock has also pushed legislation he says will lower gas prices as well as the cost of medication, especially for seniors and insulin users.

Many of the visitors said they had no intention to bid on a cow or goat Wednesday and instead visited the auction house to shake hands with Walker, a football legend at the nearby University of Georgia

“Every restaurant you go into has got a picture of Herschel Walker running with a football, so he’s got that on his side,” Stephens said.

Among those in the market for a ruminant, plenty were among those lined up for a selfie or an autograph, while others said they don’t care for him or that they don’t follow politics.

Walker repeated his talking point that Warnock has voted to support Biden’s agenda 95% of the time, a claim that resonated with members of the audience like Bob White, who came to the event with his family.

“He has conservative values,” he said of Walker. “All these people who want to vote for Warnock need to look at his record. He’s 95% for Biden. I’m 100% against Biden. It’s as simple as that. Herschel Walker is a quality man. He’s made mistakes in his life like all of us.”

Walker’s campaign is hoping for a reset after a string of unflattering reports, including alleged secret children and lies about his educational and law enforcement record, as well as strange gaffes on policy questions.

Walker avoided these pitfalls Wednesday and held an open press conference after his speech, once a rarity for his campaign. He deflected reporters’ questions about his past back onto his economic talking points and declined to take a concrete position on a nationwide abortion ban — Walker has previously indicated he would support an abortion ban without exceptions — or a plan to codify same-sex marriage.

“We need to worry about what’s happening right now,” he said in response to a question about same-sex marriage. “And right now, the economy is failing. Right now, (Joe Biden) isn’t going in the right direction. My opponent has voted with him, and you guys aren’t asking him that, why are you voting with someone who the people say is heading in the wrong direction right now, and yet they won’t turn around?”

Walker’s appearance has some of the hallmarks of a traditional campaign event, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“His handlers are getting him to stay on message,” Bullock said. “‘This is the message we want you to articulate. It doesn’t matter what the question is, here’s the answer.’ And what Republicans are doing, it’s not just Herschel Walker doing this, but you’re seeing this widespread, is that because Biden is upside down in his approval rating, Republicans are going to want to essentially say, ‘If you don’t like Joe Biden, you won’t like the Democratic nominee who’s running in your state.’”

That will be a part of the current Warnock will need to swim against if he wants to win reelection, he added.

“Statistical analyses that have been done in previous years indicate that two of the strongest predictors of how well a president’s party is going to do in a general election are, how popular is the president and what’s the state of the economy? Neither one of those are good for Democrats right now.”

A Fabrizio/Anzalone poll conducted the week ending July 11 gave Warnock a 2.8% advantage over Walker, within the margin of error.

Warnock supporters have argued that the experienced public speaker will convince many more voters when they see the two candidates debate one on one, but Walker declined to agree to a specific debate calendar Wednesday despite previously expressing willingness to face off against Warnock.

Walker previously drew criticism from his Republican opponents for not debating them during the primary.

Warnock has agreed to three debates, starting with the Atlanta Press Club Oct. 16. Walker previously said he would be ready whenever Warnock was but said Wednesday that will depend on unspecified negotiations.

“If we negotiate and get everything right, we’ll be debating Oct. 16,” he said. “I’ll be ready to go.”

Warnock’s campaign staff calls that a copout.

“Rev. Warnock believes that debates are a critical opportunity for Georgians to see the clear choice they have between him and Herschel Walker in this important election, which is why he will be participating in three debates across Georgia,” said campaign manager Quentin Fulks in a statement.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.